Jan Garbarek has become a frustratingly slow recording artist of late, with his last few releases being punctuated by gaps of sometimes up to five years each. Now again some five years after his last album ‘In Praise Of Dreams’, and still touring every year, the Norweigan saxophonist releases what might arguably be his most anticipated recording ever. The first ‘Jan Garbarek Group’ work for sixteen years, having worked with much of the band, as well as newer players and the choral Hilliard Ensemble most recently, ‘Dresden’ is also surprisingly the much-admired reed mans first live album. Even better, it’s great.
Recorded in 2007, a largely new line-up plays here. Longtime under-rated piano and keyboard maestro Rainer Bruninghaus returns, but sadly usual bass sideman Eberhard Weber suffered a - thankfully not fatal - stroke shortly before this tour started. Fresh blood then comes in the form of Brazillian bassist Yuri Daniel and sometime Garbarek partner French drummer Manu Katche.
For anyone who thinks that Garbarek had become too ‘new age’ over the course of the preceeding years, here he shows just how capable he and his formidable sidemen are. A complete reinvention of violinist Shankar’s ‘Paper Nut’ opens the concert with a stunning driving and energetic drum shuffle from Katche, before Garbarek quickly enters the fray with a tense and building trademark ‘searching’ soprano sax riff. A better opener Garbarek could not have chosen.
Pieces are pulled and re-interpreted from all over the saxophonist’s bountiful discography, but with a surprisingly large chunk of material being released here for the first time. Daniel plays highly lyrical and very soulful sounding bass throughout, and Katche crucially gives everything a pulsing drive that some may have thought Garbarek previously was missing. Bruninghaus is the secret weapon here though, constantly filling in the gaps everywhere with complex and harmonic orchestral splashes and piano runs. At one point he even lays down a hot blast of a dancing salsa solo.
Three tracks are culled from his ‘Twelve Moons’, with ‘There Were Swallows’ sounding gentle and reflective, while ‘The Tall Tear Trees’ features a simply awesome crescendo. ‘Tao’ offers Daniel a showcase for his bass playing prowess, and its sublime; multi-layed rhythm and solo all laid down at one with his unique and beautiful sound. Elsewhere ‘Once I Wished A Tree Upside Down’ becomes a joyful and uplifting latin groover, but not before ‘Transformations’ gives Bruninghaus a long and skilful, yet moving solo spot to act as a tremendous segue. ‘Milagre Dos Pieces’ offers a more traditional sounding jazz, again with which Bruninghaus steals the show.
A thrilling and varied two-hour set, that offers plenty of room for all four players to shine, ends with a funky and uplifting extended take on ‘Voy Cantando’. Garbareks solo is typically economical, but sparkles with its clean tone and piercing quality. A live recording at last from a man who should by all rights have several to his name, ‘Dresden’ brings his and his groups improvisational prowess, as well as their own powerful yet elegant playing, to bear on some outstanding material. Everything here sounds better than any other previous version, and for any listeners who found Garbareks more recent works to be increasingly too ethereal and overly adhering to the so-called ‘ECM aesthetic’, here there is a real bite, edge and grit. A great live recording, ‘Dresden’ is also arguably Garbareks best album yet.